How 'Elvis' star Austin Butler lost — and found — himself in the King of Rock 'n' Roll

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A man with blond hair poses in a leather jacket
Austin Butler poured everything he had into playing Elvis. "The humanity, Austin had from the get-go," says "Elvis" director Baz Luhrmann. "And he kept evolving." (Whitten Sabbatini / For The Times)

It was early 2019 in Los Angeles, and Austin Butler already had Elvis on the brain. A friend, hearing him sing along to "Blue Christmas" in the car, had urged him to portray the icon one day; others brought it up too. Elvis seemed to be everywhere, but it was a dream role that felt impossible.

Then the universe called. Or rather, his agent did, to say that filmmaker Baz Luhrmann was making a movie about Presley's life.

Coming off several milestones the previous year — filming Jim Jarmusch's "The Dead Don't Die" and Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood," making his Broadway debut opposite Denzel Washington in "The Iceman Cometh" — the rising actor put all auditions and meetings on hold for the next five months to concentrate on landing the role of a lifetime.

"I threw all my eggs in one basket," said Butler, now 30, with a lingering hint of a honeyed drawl, of the immersion he undertook to nab the coveted lead in Luhrmann's big-budget gamble "Elvis." "I knew that the only way that I could do it was if I gave it everything that I had."

You'd still talk with a bit of the King's twang too if you went down the rabbit hole as far as Butler did. Before he could portray the American icon in a Warner Bros. production about Presley's life and legacy, he knew he had to become a student of all things Elvis. And to know Elvis inside and out, to truly understand him, Butler was willing to give himself fully — mind, body, soul — to the process.

Winning the part

It started that day with Elvis' entire discography, which Butler put on shortly after getting the call, as he painted and plastered the old house he was living in. He devoured every Elvis documentary, every film, every YouTube fan video he could find. At first, he tried recording himself singing Elvis' 1956 ballad "Love Me Tender," but "it looked like an impersonation," he said, sipping an iced coffee last month at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, "and I thought, 'I can't send this.'"

He'd studied the songs and the way Elvis sang, but he wasn't yet sure that he was the one for the job. Thinking of his mother, who passed away from cancer in 2014 when he was 23 — the same age Elvis was when his mother, Gladys, died — he tapped into what would shape his eventual portrayal. Revisiting "Unchained Melody" not as a romantic song but one of grief, "I sang it to my mom," said Butler. "And that way of channeling those emotions just felt true."

When Luhrmann watched the submission from Butler, a young actor he didn't know anything about, "it didn't feel like an audition," said the Oscar-nominated "Moulin Rouge!" director. "It felt like a spycam."

Luhrmann had been doing his own deep Elvis research and in 2017 traveled to Memphis "undercover." There he bought a ticket for himself to visit Graceland, slipping in unnoticed among throngs of tourists. Eventually his trips became more frequent and a workspace was set up in Graceland's archives for him and co-writer Sam Bromell (the two share a screenplay credit with Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner).

A man with blond hair poses for a portrait against a yellow curtain and a vintage set design
(Whitten Sabbatini / For The Times)
A man with blond hair poses for a portrait against a pink backdrop.
(Whitten Sabbatini / For The Times)

Framed by the unreliable narration of Elvis' longtime manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, donning a body suit, an unscrupulous twinkle and thick accent), "Elvis" is no straight biopic. Instead, Luhrmann describes it as an exploration of America, with Presley symbolizing what made it great and Parker as the showman who never lost sight of "the sell." At the center of the 159-minute film, seen in flashes of magnetism, talent, live-wire energy and, ultimately, tragedy culminating in death in 1977 at age 42, is the vision that both director and star shared.

Everyone has some notion of who Elvis was, "but what gets lost is that the guy is just a guy — it's the humanity of him," Luhrmann said. "My number one mission was to humanize him. And that might have been my mission, but Austin Butler was the one that flew the plane. ... It was probably the hardest thing. This is the most impersonated man on the planet. But the humanity, Austin had from the get-go."

By July, after undergoing months of Elvis workshops — and an unsolicited call from Broadway co-star Washington, who told Luhrmann, "You're in for a surprise when you see the work ethic of this young man," said the director — Butler had beaten out the likes of Miles Teller and Harry Styles for the role. Then the work of finding and translating Presley's heart and soul began.

"That was the test that I saw in front of me," said Butler, who likened it to being a detective, piecing together a psychological profile with what clues he could find. "How do you take Elvis, who's seen as this icon or this caricature, strip all that away and find out who he really was as a man?"

Diving into the research

Born in Anaheim and discovered at 12 when he tagged along with his brother to an audition, Butler got his start on tween comedies including "Hannah Montana," "Zoey 101" and ABC Family's "Ruby and the Rockits" before moving to New York at 20. He grew up watching Turner Classic Movies every night with his movie buff dad, taking in the greats from Hitchcock to Tarkovsky to Kubrick, and remembers the first film he ever saw Sergio Leone's 1966 spaghetti western classic "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

"Elvis" is arguably the first chance he's had to show audiences all he can do as a performer. He didn't take the job lightly. "No matter what it was, no matter what Baz asked, anything, I was all in," said Butler, who put his life on pause for what became a two-year project. "Sometimes that's unhealthy. But for me at that time, I just I knew that this was what I needed to give myself to."

His research included studying every single Elvis interview until he could recite them out loud. He lived and breathed all things Elvis — the way he spoke, the way he moved, the way he sang, in order to be able to move in the world as Presley at all times. (Butler's singing voice is used in Elvis's pre-1960s musical scenes and actual Presley recordings later in the film, at times blended and interchanged so seamlessly that even Luhrmann says he can't tell who is who.)

Months of rehearsals led to the start of production in Australia in January 2020. Butler worked with voice and movement coaches to organically channel Presley whenever Luhrmann wanted to "unleash" Butler to improvise in character. That March, Hanks and wife Rita Wilson became the first Hollywood stars to announce they'd tested positive for COVID-19, and the "Elvis" production was shut down.

"It looked like the film was not going to happen," Luhrmann said. Butler opted to stay in Australia to dig deeper into his preparation.

"I could prepare every day and then sit with my own feelings and ask myself what feels right, where's my obsession going to lead me today? It started to become more about my own relationship with Elvis," he said. Some days he'd go on four-hour beach walks talking to himself, reciting Elvis interviews or perfecting the singer's particular laugh, over and over. "Just imagine that guy on the beach," he said with a chuckle.

The real-life relationships

From books like "Elvis and the Colonel," Butler tried to understand Elvis' psychology through the defining relationships in his life — not only his fraught ties to Parker, but bonds with his wife, Priscilla (played by Olivia DeJonge); father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh); and mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson). "There were certain voids that Colonel filled early on," Butler said. "And that becomes conflicting when you start to realize somebody might be taking advantage of you, but you have sort of sworn your soul to them. Elvis was loyal to a fault at times."

When filming resumed six months later, Hanks gave Butler a typewriter and they wrote back and forth in character, exploring the complicated nuances of the relationship. Sometimes Hanks would watch an Elvis film and write, "'My boy, I watched your new film,' and he would write about what he thinks of it and what we should do on our next film," Butler said. "If I had a complaint, I'd write it to him. It helped us figure out our dynamic. I still have all his typewritten letters."

Butler picked up an abundance of guidance throughout the process. A month after landing the role, he went to Nashville to tape early-career Elvis tracks at RCA Studio A, where Elvis had recorded, working with session players who'd played with Elvis' guitarist, Scotty Moore.

"I'm being thrown in the deep end, singing 'Heartbreak Hotel,' recording on the actual machinery that Elvis recorded," he said. "It was unbelievable." Recording artist Yola, who plays influential gospel musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the film, gave him singing pointers. Later on set, he was similarly star-struck by Gary Clark Jr., who plays blues legend Arthur Crudup and offered guitar tips. Not necessarily for playing Elvis, added Butler. "That was just me fanboying over Gary Clark Jr.," he said.

The film depicts how Elvis' musical and spiritual lives, intertwined from an early age, were heavily influenced by gospel, blues and Black culture. "I think you couldn't tell the story without it," said Butler, whose Presley befriends B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and absorbs the looks, sounds and fashion he finds on Beale Street. "We don't have Elvis without Black music and Black culture and Black spirituals — it's so vital to him and an incredibly important aspect."

For Butler, understanding Elvis' influences and inspirations helped inform how he portrayed the artist's evolution and signatures.

"I wanted to feel what he was feeling, and he wasn't looking at himself. He was looking at Little Richard. He was looking at Howlin' Wolf and Big Mama Thornton and all those incredible artists down on Beale Street," Butler said. "You'll see a move that Little Richard does and you go, 'That's how Elvis moved. Is that where he got that?' Elvis was kind of a magpie where he pulled things from a lot of different places."

'She loved him so much'

After Nashville, Butler rode with Luhrmann to visit places where Elvis spent his formative years. They were headed to Graceland when the director asked him: "Do you want to meet Priscilla?"

"It was so surreal meeting her for the first time," Butler said. "It really dawned on me that these are the same eyes that looked into Elvis', that he loved her so much and she loved him so much. All of that just hit me like like a flood." They spoke of Elvis, Parker and how he had big shoes to fill. "Then she gave me this big hug and said, 'You have a lot of support.' And I left that room in tears."

A man with blond hair poses for a portrait against a white wall with a toy padde and ball.
(Whitten Sabbatini / For The Times)
A man with blond hair poses for a portrait on a yellow striped couch
(Whitten Sabbatini / For The Times)

At Cannes, where the film premiered in May, Priscilla Presley called Butler's turn "mesmerizing" on her Instagram account. In an email to The Times, Presley admitted she was "nervous" to see the film. "I watched the trailer over a dozen times before I watched the full movie," she wrote. "When I watched the film for the first time, I was so overcome by emotions that it took me a few days to process. Baz, Tom, Austin and Olivia did a beautiful job."

Presley said the research and care Butler applied to the role shines through. "It was more than I ever expected. He became Elvis."

Despite mixed critical reactions to Hanks' portrayal of Parker, Cannes left Luhrmann feeling satisfied. "At Cannes, they'll boo you," he said after the festival debut, admitting that he steels himself for all sorts of reactions. "'Moulin Rouge!' got a good reaction but a lot of detractors too. My films always have this kind of critical show." During the 12-minute ovation, he said, "there was genuine emotion in the room. If I never go to Cannes again, I can be very happy with that night."

Life after Elvis

At some point in the future, Butler would like to move behind the camera and make movies like Tarantino, Luhrmann and Paul Thomas Anderson, writer-directors he admires. "I love filmmaking," he said. "I don't know what else I would do with my life. I'm not ready yet, but there will come a day."

Coming off his intense, years-in-the-making "Elvis" shoot, his body immediately went into crisis mode, he told British GQ, and he was briefly hospitalized.

"I talked to Tom and Baz because I thought I might sink into a major depression when I finish this because suddenly the only thing I have done, now I don't have," Butler said. "I will feel purposeless, and suddenly the rest of my life is going to come flooding back in a way that might be a bit overwhelming. Baz was like, 'It might be nice for you to just jump right into something else.'"

Over Thanksgiving dinner, Hanks mentioned the World War II project he was executive producing for Apple with Steven Spielberg, "Masters of the Air." Butler signed on and flew to London after "Elvis" wrapped in early 2021 to shoot the war miniseries — just the change of pace he was looking for. He spent the year in London shedding Elvis, returning to life with friends, and taking up pottery as therapy.

One of the key takeaways from his time with the King is in learning from how Presley dealt with fame. "In the beginning, especially, he always seemed very grateful and present, like he somehow was able to see it for what it was and it hadn't warped his reality," Butler said. "And the times in which he stayed true to himself, there's a lot for me to learn in that because so many people have opinions and ideas about what you should be doing or who you should be or how you should look.

"I think that the lesson in there for me is to try to really turn up the volume of my own intuition and ask myself what I really want to do."

Finally returning to the States around Christmastime 2021, he had a few weeks to himself before beginning prep for his next job, playing Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen for Denis Villeneuve in Budapest for "Dune: Part Two." There was one thing he wanted to do.

He went back to Graceland.

Butler noticed he felt different this time around. "The first time that I went I felt like an impostor. I felt too small," he said. "Going back this time, I felt like I was coming home. I feel like Elvis' spirit is there."

A man with blond hair poses for a portrait against a pink backdrop.
(Whitten Sabbatini / For The Times)

For the record:
9:21 a.m. June 24, 2022: An earlier version of this article referred to gospel musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe as Sister Rosetta Sharpe.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.